This game directly fuels my depression.

Now, this is not a statement about the basic conceit of the game or how well that conceit is adapted into gameplay, but this (and I assume other) simulation of menial labour without any purpose makes me enter a very troublesome state of mind.

The basic gameplay loop of having to clean several giant buildings and vehicles with a basic toolset that barely changes is neither a fun not otherwise satisfying undertaking for me, but that alone doesn’t really trigger negative thoughts, it’s just kind of boring to me. The worst part about it is that despite its very apparent repetetiveness and simplicity it is highly addicting, because the game gives you a neat checklist and small visual and auditory rewards for cleaning every single surface. Every time you clean a surface to an amount the game deems “good enough to be done” (usually a very reasonable estimate by the game devs) a small reward sound plays and the surface in question blinks white, as to suggest that it’s now clean and polished. The game is also not entirely without merits in regards to moment-to-moment decision-making, you can use different nozzles and cleaning agents - not to mention navigating the space to reach the more elusive spots. If you wanted to challenge yourself by speedrunning this game I assume it’d be fun in weird way.

This level of engagement to my reptile brain is just enough to keep going despite not getting any actual fulfillment from it. The problem is obvious: This game traps me. I play this game for 2 hours to clean a carousel and while I do get a momentary dopamine hit for each surface cleaned, this is not an intrinsic reward for me, and it doesn’t even elicit a genuine feeling of accomplishment. It’s just the game telling me: “You’ve done a good job! Here, have a treat.” There is no emotional arc here, there is no relaxation from a real-life work day, and this game just feels like unpaid and unsatisfying labour. In the real world, I could very likely feel a sense of purpose for this work, simply because I’d be materially helping people and restoring real properties to their former beauty, but I do not derive any enjoyment from menial tasks done for the sake of themselves. When you clean a property in this game, it will just stay cleaned in the transient digital void, for no one (not even yourself) to ever appreciate that work again.

I do not believe the makers of this game are incompetent, quite the opposite actually - They tried to build a game for people to relax, give some people a little reward here and there, and if these extrinsic pats on the back actually do it for you and make your day better, I am genuinely happy for you. But I also can’t deny what this game does me. It makes me feel like I wasted hours of my life doing nothing of value. Just the thought of booting it up again makes me feel anxious, because I don’t want to get caught in this loop again. The only thing of value I could extract from this game is that I learned something about myself: I should listen to the warning signs of a mental treadmill like this sooner. That nagging feeling that I’m not actually having fun and just going through the motions is probably right.

Once severely maligned by casual players and hardcore fans of the series alike, Final Fantasy 13 has been nothing but vindicated by the success of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. A hybrid combat system with both real-time and turn-based elements. A strong focus on characters and vistas. The presentation of the world as a sight-seeing tour through mostly linear corridors.

This might feel very contentious to a lot of people, but it’s true that a lot of 13’s DNA is present in 7R, and for the most part, 13 just does it flat out better. This game has a strong focus on its central mechanics - the combat system. It’s the central way of engaging with the game, and – spin-offs excluded – it’s one of the most combat-heavy Final Fantasy games to date, with even the more exploration-heavy areas having combat as their main reward.

The combat is designed really well - a very compact system that lets you do decisions about a meta-level of play that any sensible player already knows how to employ if they ever touched a turn-based combat system. As the developer correctly surmised, there is no challenge anymore in menuing to a Cure spell every other round to keep the party alive, especially for JRPG veterans. Final Fantasy 13 still seeks its identity in an idea adjacent to ATB, although the real-time component of older Final Fantasies mattered too little to actually make the quick menuing dangerous to your party. Final Fantasy 13 solves these problems: It relieves you of the burden to micromanage and additionally makes the real-time component integral to the challenge by constantly pressuring you to make quick decisions.

The focus in the battle system lies on choosing the correct strategy and not telling each character exactly what to do. These strategies are defined by the “roles” each character has, and these roles define what moves a character has and how they will behave. There are 6 roles in the game, each character has 3 of those 6 roles as their “main” roles, in which they excel. Each possible role combination of the 3 active characters is a “paradigm”. One of the genius parts of this battle system is that you can only choose 6 paradigms before each battle in your load-out, which means you have to leave a lot of possible options on the table and still have to be prepared for all eventualities that might occur in the battle. The game would arguable devolve into just another form of micro-managing if you could assign roles individually during a battle, so I welcome this limitation. There will always be some fights where you won’t have the optimal paradigms equipped, and still winning quickly despite that is what makes you feel like you really understood the ins and outs of the game.

During battle you only directly control your party leader, meaning the other characters behave autonomously according to their role and the current state of the battle. The fact that the automated characters almost always (and by almost I really do mean 99+% of the time) make sensible choices in combat is a testament to how simple the rules of menu-based combat usually are. Even for the party leader, the game gives you an option to preselect the character moves for you, still abiding by the thought that what you have before you is probably an easily solvable problem, as long as you have the correct strategy in mind. You can – of course – always manually choose the inputs of the party leader to optimize everything a bit further, and that is sometimes a key component of harder boss fights, but micromanaging one character in a tight situation is a far cry from inputting moves for every character each round regardless of the current battle complexity.

This all begs the question, if everything is automated, surely the game must not be very challenging? The answer is: Kind of. Final Fantasy 13 can be an easy game if you just try to play it safe and survive at any cost, but playing that way is highly discouraged through fostering intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The really smart thing about this combat system is how the game tries to get you to overextend yourself, and it has 2 main ways of doing this: The ranking system and the stagger system.

The ranking system is very simple, but elegant for this purpose: The faster you complete a battle, the better your rank is and a better rank means you get better items. This gives you an additional extrinsic motivation for optimization and going for offense, and it cost me quite a few battles just because I really wanted a full 5 star rating and made an unsafe decision because of that. It’s very to the point: “You could have been faster“, and holding this over your head alone is a great motivator and factor that keeps pushing you into new strategies.

The other way the game tries to goad you into making mistakes is the stagger system. Most modern Final Fantasy games have the stagger system as a bar that fills upon attacking the enemy until it – on completion – stuns the enemy for a brief period of time and gives you a damage multiplier on your attacks during that period. The interesting thing about this is that 13 is the first FF to ever employ this system, and it’s still by far the most interesting iteration. In this game it’s not only designed to give you catharsis through a bigger damage output through upon completing the bar, it actually has a few more purposes that feed directly back into the idea of letting the player make more mistakes.

The stagger bar in Final Fantasy 13 isn’t just a constantly filling bar that rewards you with a damage multiplier at the end, it consistently rises and increases the multiplier with each hit. The bar also constantly reduces (not the multiplier!) and only resets when you do a hit to the enemy. Upon the bar reaching zero, you lose the current damage multiplier and you effectively have to start your offense over again, only keeping the HP damage you did to the enemy up to that point. This, of course, means you have to constantly keep pressuring an enemy if you want to end up doing substantive damage, not to mention that keeping an enemy in check during stagger is much easier, since he is more easily interruptable.

Playing defensively is of course still an option, and having a paradigm only consisting of defensive roles is sometimes even necessary to survive, but keep that formation running for too long and you potentially nullify all effort you have put into the battle offensively. Again, this constant feeling of push-and-pull to keep going is great at getting you to overextend yourself and make bad decisions. You might be able to put all characters into an attacking role and fill the stagger bar before any of your characters die, but making the right judgment call when you go for the final part of the stagger bar is crucial. There are bosses in this game that attack relentlessly, finding windows to attack and quickly fill their stagger bar always feels like a gamble, but at some point you want to take the proverbial leap of faith and go into complete offense, lest you turtle even longer and lose that sweet 5 star rating. All systems in the game interlock masterfully to give you this one goal: Minimal defense, maximum offense.

Of course, all of this would be useless if every battle played the same. Luckily, the game understands this and has a wide variety of enemies and enemy formations that each require different strategies. The further you get in the game, the more enemy combinations make it hard to map out the encounter strategy in your head: Who should you deal with first? Can you get through this with a short buffing period? Should you have a safety healer on hand or just bumrush the enemies with a completely offensive strategy? Which offensive strategy? Is debuffing key here or not? These questions constantly turn up in play, and it’s basically guaranteed you will keep dying and learning to deal with new formations thrown at you throughout the whole game. As the game progresses, paradigm changes will happen quicker and you will sometimes change up the strategy to simply execute a single move and then move on to the next paradigm. The challenge escalates and the gameplay becomes more frantic as you go, which is an impressive feat for 30+ hour game.

One problem the game has here is that the pacing of the variation of combat encounters could be faster in a lot of chapters. There is a lot of monotony in certain locations, even with the whole idea of optimizing the battles. Some sections drag out too long and throw too many similar enemy formations at you to keep pace with player skill – which is a shame, considering that the chapter-to-chapter escalation is really solid otherwise. It feels like the developers wanted to play it too safe at some points or that they wanted to preserve the “feeling” of older RPGs where you fight each enemy more often.

The “RPG” part of the game is really digestible: All of the customization in FF 13 comes from equipment, and every character only has effectively 3 stats: Strength, Magic and HP. The lack of any defensive stat is welcome, since most RPGs don’t actually handle the potential tradeoff between defense and HP interestingly, and it only muddles the water in what the player should invest in. Some accessories grant you defensive boosts against certain types of attacks, but these correspond to flat percentage damage reductions and are therefore easily understandable.

The game is essentially one long ride from battle to battle with some sight-seeing inbetween, but I do mean that positively – mostly. The game still looks amazing, even by today’s standards, and it’s not only impressive what Square got out of 7th gen hardware, but also how fresh and unique the environments and characters in this game feel. Final Fantasy 13 presents a world that is torn between technology and naturality and everything about its visuals underscores this dichotomy. The “gods” of this world – the Fal’cie – do not fall into any standard depiction of supernaturality, they are machinistic and technologic at their core, giant and complex machines beyond our comprehension. The designs of these beings vary wildly, but they are all cohesive in that they feel fundamentally alien and slightly unsettling, almost like a mechanical version of Lovecraft’s elder gods or the often quoted “biblically accurate angels”. This is not only a very unique design choice, it also drives home the point that these beings are at odds with the natural order of the world and with the humans that reside in it.

Even the music hones in on this theme – Masashi Hamauzu created an incredible soundtrack that underscores this conflict between man and machine by mixing up electronic and orchestral music. Some of the best music in the series is here, the somber “Dust to Dust” being one of the most powerful ballads these games have to show for themselves. Hearing the haunting vocals in the melody of the games’ leitmotif while witnessing the desolation around you is a moment that will always stay with me. The main battle theme “Blinded by Light” is a triumphant orchestral piece that never gets grating and, even at the end, had me humming along with the melody. The pop track “The Sunleth Waterscape” is (in)famous for how schmaltzy it is, but that exact type of unapologetic commitment to a corny pop track is what ends up making it so charming, and it ends up being one of the highlights of the soundtrack for it.

The pacing and story of Final Fantasy 13 are probably its weakest part – many of the emotional beats miss their mark, because the melodrama has been built up in a way that feels too convoluted. The best example here is the emotional arc between Snow and Hope, which falls flat for several reasons; The biggest one being that Hope takes way too long to confront Snow about his anger and Snow making way too many convoluted and incidental remarks that specifically only serve to strenghten Hope’s grudge against Snow. While the player already knows how both characters feel, we are strung along for a very drawn-out conflict that resolves unsatisfyingly. That’s not to say that none of these emotional beats work – Final Fantasy 13 is at its best when it’s drenched in straightforward, unapologetic pathos. Each of the characters has their own moment when they decide that they “can’t run away anymore”, metaphorically speaking, and this works better for some and worse for others, courtesy of what these characters are actually running from. Sazh’s story of grappling with his feelings as a father is probably the arc that resonates the most, and the game’s theme of pushing forward is at its most personal here, and I would argue that it also has the fewest problems with its pacing.

Another problem with the story is that some aspects keep being weirdly underexplained, even if you sift through the written datalogs. Especially the character motivations of Fang are confusing – who has a crucial role in the games’ finale. Her behaviour takes quite a bit of the hype out of the climax, despite the otherwise great presentation.

Final Fantasy 13 is one of those games that really struck a nerve with me despite its obvious issues. It will stay with me for longer and give me more to think about than most other linear JRPGs, because what I see here is an extremely interesting and highly successful attempt at deconstructing menu-based combat and trying to translate it to a meta-level, making a point to be less about singular actions and more about character behaviours, and it succeeds marvelously at that. It presents an ambitious idea at a combat system for veterans of the genre that are a tired of just hitting obvious choices in menus and already think about each fight in terms of roles and tactics.

It’s a game that has a very strong visual and auditory identity on top of that, and I can’t really say I played another game that felt, sounded or looked anything close to it. It’s a unique gem in the JRPG sphere in both gameplay and presentation, and even if you don’t mesh with all the things I mentioned as much as I do, I would still recommend giving it a shot, because it does present something far away from the typical fare the genre is known for.

While I am not the greatest fan of Chrono Trigger, I can at least appreciate it for trying to streamline the JRPG formula into a digestible and well presented format. It’s like a summer blockbuster: Not a lot to chew on, but you’ll leave the theater satisfied, and hey, you might wanna watch it again some time. It has interesting setpieces, great music, charming art design, it’s the exact kind of style-over-substance package that I can enjoy - and the parts of it that are actually idiosyncratic are genuinely interesting. I love the option to end the game prematurely at any point, for example, it’s a serious commitment to the whole idea of fighting a time traveling cosmic horror.

Now why am I comparing this game to critical darling Chrono Trigger? For Super Mario RPG it really does make sense: It’s a Squaresoft game, it’s meant for more casual players and it mainly tries to capture the audience through a “vibe”, an experience. To me, it seems like Super Mario RPG is trying to do the same kind of trick – pulling the wool over your eyes with its own sense of style and wackiness, trying to get you to hop on the ride and just have some fun with Mario’s shenanigans in this even-more-cartoonish-than-usual depiction of the Mushroom Kingdom.

But It just doesn’t work. I don’t care about Mario’s ride. Super Mario RPG fails at a very fundamental level to engage me and I almost feel bad for not “getting” it, because it’s trying so hard to be cute and charming, but it’s falling flat at every corner.

My biggest point of contention is that the core mechanics of the game just don’t really feel good. There is nothing to keep me even superficially engaged in the battle system, because every fight is laughably easy if you pay the slightest bit of attention, the attack animations are decent, but not outstanding, and worst of all, the action commands feel limp. The latter might seem like a small thing - you could almost call it a nitpick - but considering this is the action you do most often in combat, it only makes sense that it should be polished to a ridiculous degree, and it just isn’t. If you force me to do a timed button press for every single attack and to defend against every enemy attack during your 15-20 hour turn based RPG, you better make really damn sure that it feels incredible to do so. Give it some real crunch, make me feel that I succeeded, make me smile in anticipation before Mario attacks and make me hit that button with entusiasm, make a sound effect that evokes power, show me how the enemy reacts to my defensive action command, give it all some real visual flair. The action commands in this game feel like slapping 2 dry sponges together, I feel nothing when I pull them off. Where Paper Mario plays with sound effect crescendos and large visual indicators of success, Super Mario RPG does a little unsatisfactory jingle and puts some colored stars on the screen and calls it a day. This feeling isn’t helped by the fact that the timing for the special commands is weirdly obtuse and trial-and-error; some attacks have their timing window when the character is taking a swing, some have their window when the attack hits the enemy, and some have their timing window at an undiscernible point somewhere inbetween - and there is no actual indicator to tell when the button really needs to be pushed. You might say this type of timing trial and error is fun, but it’s not.

My second larger point of contention is that the general dungeon design is just forgettable. Most areas feel like a haphazardly slapped together collection of assets and rooms with enemies placed in random spots. Only a few rooms really give off the feeling that they have any deeper design thought put into them – platforming rooms, puzzle rooms or dungeon segments that pose any navigational challenge are rare. The dungeons are largely affairs of walking from point A to point B and fighting enemies inbetween (or not). None of the treasure chest placements are particularly exciting, either. If the dungeons were at least visually interesting or would transport an interesting theme, I could even forgive lackluster dungeon design, but a lot of the dungeons are just the most generic ideas you can think of for JRPGs. Forests. Roads. Sewers. A cave. A mountain. Riveting stuff. The worst part about it that there is so much use of recoloured assets between these excuses for dungeon ideas that there is no way they could ever shine. I am not saying that a Forest is an inherently bad dungeon setting if you pull it off with an interesting aesthetical style, but Super Mario RPG once again simply does not. The forests, roads, caves are neither mysterious, magical, nor do they even have interesting colour schemes, no, it’s just plain old forests, roads and caves. It tries to get away by painting over standard scenarios with it’s claymation art style and by injecting some Mario-Isms, but that’s too little to get away with ideas this generic. Even at its most creative, Mario RPG gets a “that’s kind of neat” out of me. A far cry from the medieval churches, futuristic factories, and ancient civilations from something like Chrono Trigger.

You might say that at least the visual style of the game is interesting and Super Mario RPGs character design really is one of its most distinctive traits, but also one of its most dissonant when it uses enemy designs that don’t fit the Mario mold. Why are there some designs that are trying to be spooky or unnerving (in children’s terms of course) when a lot of other enemies are just goofy looking cartoons? It feels a bit too directionless, there is also no coherent throughline for enemy types within a location. Some enemies are just funny little guys, and some are actual monsters you could describe as such. The character design doesn’t feel cohesive, it just feels like some were designed by Nintendo staff and others by Squaresoft staff.

The weirdest part is that by using these distinctly Non-Nintendo character designs in this setting, it feels like the game isn’t actually convinced that the Mario aesthetic is deserving of an RPG on its own. The principal antagonists are distinctly industrial entities, meant to represent weapons like knives, hammers and spears, whereas the known inhabitants of the mushroom kingdom are what you could call "core scrimblo". This feels weirdly out of place with the conceit that the game is entirely non-serious in its presentation of the story and the characters. There are basically no characters arcs or philosophies at play here, it’s just Mario fending off some invaders and it doesn’t really matter who those invaders are or why they are doing it. One of the first situations you are confronted with are Shy Guys on Pogo Sticks invading a town that you save by fighting a giant knife, and it doesn’t really get any more serious from there. The aesthetical contradictions could have been used to make a point, but the game doesn’t try to, and that makes it feel needlessly confused. At no point in the story is any real drive felt, it’s all silly and meant to be funny, so what is the point of the contrasting designs?

Since the story is so light-hearted, the jokes should at least land, but Mario RPG even fails at being funny most of the time – a lot the humor in the game is just the general idea of some concept or character trait being funny inherently, and these aren’t utilized for real set-ups and punchlines. An easy example: Bowser is a tough guy who is actually more worried about everything than he lets on, and he sometimes lets this slip. That’s the joke. There is no real execution at hand here, just wild gesturing in the direction of this contradictory behaviour. I am going cut the game some slack when I say that this is maybe the result of a subpar translation, because character reactions during story happenings also sometimes don’t really fit what is being said, but this still doesn't excuse the experience I had with that translation. Speaking of story, many of the humorous cutscenes feel like they are supposed to be somehow inherently funny because the main characters are pantomiming what happened to other characters. Now, character sprites in a SNES game are a rather limited resource, so what Mario and his friends are actually pantomiming at other people is often visually underwhelming, and it feels like I’m just supposed to laugh at the idea of pantomiming itself? The incidental jokes and cutscenes reflect a very superficial approach to humor where I feel I am supposed to laugh at the set up for a joke that is never followed up on.

If there is one thing I can say in favor of the game, it’s that I like the music. While it’s not my favorite SNES soundtrack, I can say that I had fun listening to the songs in the different locales and during battles. It hits just the right tone between tension and playfulness, and it’s generally catchy - I even like some of the songs in isolation, which is not something that happens often to me with SNES tracks, to be truthful.

I hate to be this negative about a game that is by all accounts a work of love, but as a whole package I would never recommend it. It’s a confused mess, failing to straddle the line between both the “Mario” and the “RPG” part and ends up satisfying the wish for neither. It tries to be experiential but doesn’t actually pull out all the stops to be remembered on the basis of its story or its locales and it leaves me with a very unsatisfactory feeling, like I wasted my time wishing for more. I feel like I will have forgotten most of the dungeons and characters in a month. I hoped that Mario’s first foray into the world of numbers would be more exciting, but I think I can at least look forward to the other games in the Mario RPG series being more up my alley.

If this game had an MP meter instead of cooldowns I'd give it the full 5 stars

yeah everybody pretends that the real draw is building complex contraptions, but let's be real, 99% of us are just strapping 20 rockets, 7 flamethrowers and 13 lasers to a wooden plank and let it rip

Played on PS5. If you do, too, use Gyro!

Something something something remake

There seems to be a general apprehension about calling this game “better” than the original by people who fancy themselves action game enthusiasts, and it’s easy to see why. Resident Evil 4 2005 is historically such an action game juggernaut, it introduced the concept of the over-the shoulder third person shooter to a huge audience and the game is unmatched in the way it matches it’s core crowd control mechanics to its setpieces. A game with a 4/5 hit rate for making 20 minute gameplay scenarios great is ludicrously high, and it’s especially impressive that the single 1/5 isn’t noteworthy because it’s bad, but because it’s still good and just doesn’t reach quite the same height.

Comparisons between the Remake and the main game are inevitable, that is just something we have to live with. So, in the interest of fairness I will admit that I played the original exactly once in my adult life, and that was directly before the Remake. As you can tell, I loved it. So where does the Remake fall?

New moves

RE4R gives you a larger toolset than the original. Where 2005 was confident in letting you interface with the world around in very basic and context-free executable verbs (“shoot”, “run”, “slash”) with a few well-considered context-sensitive verbs (“kick” after a stagger for crowd control) and a few questionably implemented context-sensitive ones (“dodge” being a QTE with potentially changing inputs, timing and positioning windows for example), the Remake expands on these verbs immensely, not only by adding more (“crouch”, “parry”) but also by letting you combine old ones. Now you can, for example, “aim” and “move” at the same time, and the added free camera control makes a whole world of difference in how you can view and assess dangers around you.

Almost none of these additional options feel tacked on or underwhelming. The crouch is a great little stealth tool and making your hitbox smaller to avoid projectiles or high melee attacks feels like you are weaving through chaos. The parry is an almost universal defense against melee attacks, yet the knife durability cost makes it a neat trade-off, and having to let enemies get close is always a risk, since many of them have unparriable grab attacks. Your knife can now get you out of sticky situations or kill strong enemies at the cost of a large chunk of durability. You now have an aiming reticle that slowly closes and increases the stagger value of your shots, a way to counteract the less restricted movement. The only additional technique I don’t quite understand is an always-available knife slash that can’t be accurately directed and is slower than the little stabs you can get from actively readying the knife. It seems comparatively sluggish and less considered than the other options.

RNG in action games

Surprisingly, the biggest change in gameplay comes neither from the moveset, not the encounter design, but from the ways RE4R adds inconsistency. Not a word many action game fans want to hear, I’m sure, and I understand why. If you play a game in the style Devil May Cry and enemy or attack behaviour is inconsistent, you invite large amounts of potential frustration, because players want to be in control of the situation, or at least, they want to feel like they could have been in control if they executed everything perfectly. Often games in action gamer circles get slammed for enemy hitstun being tied to some form of hidden meter or RNG. And I agree, I don’t want this type of stuff in a melee action game and it seems wild to me that designers would tie central gameplay that is about positioning, crowd control and interrupting enemies to some degree of randomness.

Usually randomness in action games is not something the player triggers with an attack, but “input randomness” - something that happens to the player independent of choice, enemies picking their tactics from simple random attack and movement pools and the rng itself being largely isolated from the player. Being in this weird state of semi-control over enemy hitstun (“output randomness”) and it not feeling terrible is weird.

But I enjoy it here. Why?

The answer is, maybe, more simple than I expected: Resident Evil 4 Remake is not a melee action game, and as a shooter it is relatively slowly paced. You have enough time to make plans in case your shots trigger an enemy stun state, and in a slow game like this having an alternative plan isn’t unreasonable, nor does it harm the flow of gameplay. I assume you feel like you are just reacting to stuns and stagger prompts during crowd control segments when your mind isn’t trained for mapping out two possibility spaces at once, and it seems fair to me that you would critizice it if that is the case. It is a completely different appeal than most action games have (this includes the largely deterministic original), and it’s the only time I have seen this type of stun reaction RNG and actually found it exciting, so it’s not like there were a lot of well-considered games you could extrapolate this skill set from.

But all these additional gameplay quirks would amount to nothing if the game also didn’t build itself around them. If you placed Remake Leon against enemies from the OG, he would absolutely wreck them without breaking a sweat. So what does the game do with all this?

Encounters and Side Quests

The Remake doesn’t reach the same quality of encounter variety and scenario breadth the original does and some of the adapted gameplay segments also feel less considered than the ones in the original RE4. This is, in my opinion, Resident Evil 4 Remake’s biggest flaw. As I described in the beginning, I feel hard pressed to think of a setpiece or scenario that doesn’t fit the original well to at least some degree, but the Remake has some adaptions and original ideas that don’t quite land. The game is at its weakest when it tries to be more cinematically-minded, because, as you might have surmised by now, I think the core mechanics are incredibly strong. The minecart-segment in the original was basically a horizontal elevator segment where you had to tactically switch carts to avoid enemies and find the best avenues for attack for enemies that might jump into the carts later. The minecart-segment in the Remake is a bad to mediocre shooting gallery. Which is especially baffling, considering the actual shooting gallery in the game is addicting and leans into the shooting mechanics so well - I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better shooting gallery minigame in general.

The other scenarios in the game are of varying level of quality, and especially during the village chapter everything feels fresh, the castle is a 50/50, and during the Island some of the gimmicks feel like they’re trying too hard to swarm you with enemies and bullets from all sides. That is an original thing for RE4 to do at this point, but it’s not particularly fun, because it’s so overwhelming that playing it safe can feel like the only option.

Another big point against the game are the side quests. Not the mere existence of side quests, mind oyu – I think it’s silly to be mad at a game for optional goals if the goals actually fun, even if it’s a very 【C O N T E N T】 thing to do. The problem is that many of the side quests are just inane fetch quests or “shoot the blue medallions” and interesting ones are few and far between. A shame, because the three quests with unique enemies show great promise, and I’d rather the designers have left out other side quests and just added three more of those. Hell, you wouldn’t even need unique enemies, you could just combine existing ones in interesting and more challenging ways for these quests.

And now for something completely different

Usually I wouldn’t pay the story and tone any mind in a more mechanically focused review, but the discussion surrounding the game in that regard is nothing short of puzzling. I do not feel like this game is in any meaningful capacity more serious or “down-to-earth” than the original and neither does it try to be. Leon is a corny goofball throughout the whole experience, and he has some zingers that would make me blush when saying them out loud – and I’m a Dad.

One of the only times the game tries to give more weight to things is when it’s making Ashley more of a genuine character and less of a damsel in distress who is solely there to have her physical appearance get commented on. The other is fleshing out Luis’ character as a reliable and funny partner in a segment that tries to capture an almost Indiana Jones-esque feeling with the minecart ride and the exploration of a hidden underground lair, so it’s a far cry from saying it tries to be more serious in that way. The only real exception to the whole tonal non-shift is Saddler, who is now not a sadistic snarky asshole, but plays up the whole cult leader angle seriously - but it’s so utterly campy and contrasts with how corny-cool Leon is, that it wraps around to working out again. It’s the 80s action movie trope of a bad guy who takes himself far too seriously and the John McClane type destroying his plans single-handedly with goofy one-liners.


So, back to the original question: Is RE4R better than the original? The answer is: Kind of, sometimes, [insert other noncommital phrase here]. In its best moments I get a much bigger kick out of the core mechanics and I feel like a god weaving through the battlefield making snap decisions that result in absolute carnage, because I am prepared for eventualities without constantly falling back like a German soldier in the Russian winter. In its worst moments I feel like I am going through the motions and I wish the game did more unique little segments that fit its own mechanics, not those of its original. I am thankful that it only rarely tries to cater to the “cinematic” crowd, and that is a pretty laudable thing these days for its size and budget, so I can forgive some little blunders here and there.

I am convinced that the core mechanics in RE4R are stronger than in the original and that if you kept the momentum of the village chapters up during the whole game, it would feel less like a side-grade. The way it is right now, it’s “only” as good as the original as a whole to me, and that is still a huge feat considering how brazen some of the core mechnical changes are and how astonishingly good the original still is. I’ve mentioned before that the idea of implementing enemy output randomness in action games seemed ludicrous, but it’s a feat this game managed to pull off, and I am very thankful that it managed to open my eyes to a fair implementation of the concept that encourages the player to always ride two exciting mental tracks at once. I want future (Resident Evil?) games to expand on this concept and fully realize it. It’s not as big of a gameplay revolution as the first one, but this unique implementation is as refreshing to me as a third person shooter could be these days, and it makes me eager for other examples to come along and change my perspective on concepts I might have thought were unsalvagable for action games. I hope with passing years and more exploration of this mechanical twist in RE4Make and future games, people will grow more accomodated to the thought, and maybe look back on this game as the one that turned around RNG hit reactions in slower action games into something interesting instead of aggravating, because I think this type of gameplay definitely deserves more consideration.

Geometry Dash is a perfect microcosm of all execution-based gaming. There are almost no unnecessary distractions, the game has a clear objective and you basically always only have exactly one way to do it.

In this (not endless!) runner game the screen moves from right to left while you control a character that can – according to the whims of the level designer – jump, fly, flip gravitation, airjump or whatever else can be fit into one-button gameplay. Yes, Geometry Dash is playable with only exactly one button. I played it on a smartphone and the controls allow you to touch the screen anywhere. I could go on a tangent here how this ridiculously simple design still actively makes you consider the control choices here, but I don’t want to bloat this review too much. (ask me about it tho)

Depending on the form your character takes (which is purely determined by where in the level you are), you control character height in different ways, but you only control your character vertically, while the horizontal pace of every level is constant, and only modified by the level and not you. As a cube, you have a jump of fixed height. As a rocket, you ascend when pressing and descend when not pressing. As a ball, you have to flip gravity to roll yourself through the level. And you have to do it perfectly for each level, from start to end. If you die, you start over. The game doesn’t care if you died 98% through a 5 minute level and if you only lost because your nerves got to you. Do it again, you fucking nerd. You’re not in control at all, but you have to make the ride work anyways.

This simple concept evokes a lot of feelings for me. I have to ask myself, why is it so addicting? The game might have collectibles in each level and you gain fake “currency” for every time you progress further into a level, but neither is anything of this paid or even slightly intrustive, nor do you unlock anything but cosmetics. It’s just neat reward - it doesn’t skinner-box you, but it gives you a lot of options how you want to look for your own enjoyment. I don’t play this game to “unlock” stuff, though, not at all. The main drive of this game is that it shows you how you, as a human, can get better at something that seems impossible and it does so at an incredible pace. You might think collecting the three coins in level 6 and finishing seems impossible when you try it the first time, because, well fuck, how are you going to keep up your concentration for this long, and you can only get consistently to the 15% mark of the level – how are you supposed to do that? Thankfully the game supplies a handy practice mode that lets you fumble through levels and learn each section the way you want with checkpoints where you want them. You can retry each section on your own 50 times, and suddenly, wait, how did I finish the level after 2 hours? It seemed so impenetrable.

I know some people have defeatist feelings when they watch a veteran player utterly destroy a game that they struggle with. Older Platinum Games might have great combat, but the scoring is often wildly demoralizing to newer players, and since the learning curve there is longer than 2 hours, it makes people give up faster, when it is meant to motivate them. Geometry Dash is here to remind you that, what seems impossible, is maybe just a minor roadblock. You can get decent or even good at something extremely fast, and you’re just overestimating the task because you haven’t faced anything like it before. You learn each level and get better, the execution is in your hands and mastering each of the levels is a very own niche skill in itself. Over time, you will have to learn less and react better on the fly to more complex level structures. You not only get better at a micro-, but at a macro-level, considerably so.

Another question this game is making me ask is this one: How many games are at their core just like Geometry Dash, about pure memorization and execution skill without player expression and how do they still differ?

Geometry Dash is more varied than pure rhythm games like Osu, DDR or Guitar Hero that keep the same control scheme and functionality over literally all gameplay, which makes it harder for Geometry Dash to keep the same macro-level skills like these games do, but there is value in that. There is excitement in being absolutely flabbergasted at the challenge each time and learning to overcome it anyways. Even if it is limited, Geometry Dash can show you through its simple memorizational and executional challenge that you can also be good and learn a skill, if you go about it the right way. There is no “finding out”, there is no “trying different things”, there is no expressivity and no dynamism. There is only “do it”, and yeah, that is sometimes how life works.

The reminder that there is always a little challenge on my phone that shows me that I, in fact, can just “do it” puts me at ease.

Great Ace Attorney is a crime-solving VN where you play young Japanese man Ryunosuke Naruhodo who has been thrust by unlikely circumstances to become a lawyer in England.

The premise is ridiculous and the game successfully walks the thin line of taking itself serious at times where it's important (with big shonen anime pathos, but serious, nonetheless) and being a playful adventure around both intriguing and wacky roundabout crime-solving mysteries with courtroom drama.

One thing I should mention here is that Great Ace Attorney ventures far more into the realm of "real-world" problmes than the other games in the series, namely, racism. You would think a wacky anime game like this is ill-equipped to take on such a heavy subject matter, but it realistically depicts how people back then (and nowadays) view other people from far removed cultures. The constant allusions to Japanese people being "just weird" almost feels like an indictment towards this sentiment in our era, where it's always about those wacky Japanese people doing wacky Japanese things without any regard for their other cultural habits and customs. I highly respect that Great Ace Attorney was willing to go there, even if it always addresses the depicted racism with some form of levity and snarky remark from Ryunosuke and doesn't just make you look at it and get too uncomfortable.

Enough heavy stuff. I feel like VNs live or die mainly by presentation and writing, which are both in my opinion
a) absolutely excellent and
b) highly subjective
but I can also commend the games on its active gameplay segments:

1) Mostly linear point & click investigation segments. These are mainly structured in a way to pace the flow of information, which, admittedly, doesn't really feel like meaningful gameplay and more of a knack in supplying information in a more exciting way but that 100% isn't meant as a detriment. Tiny bits of looking around and clicking stuff to simulate investigating a crime scene goes a long way for experiencing a story that is fundamentally built on mysteries and intrigue. Being delivered all this information passively through pure VN segments would frankly be more boring and make you feel more disconnected from the mystery at hand.

2) Deduction-based gameplay:
This is where this series truly shines. Unlike the gameplay mentioned before, these segments are strictly linear, but they always face you with a conundrum that surrounds the established facts. Does anything that has been said by a witness contradict the facts? How do you explain this or that circumstance of the case? What evidence has to be looked into further to give an answer? The genius herein lies that the game (usually) has given you a lot of information at the start of each of the deduction segments, making you anticipate the points that might crop up but also blindsiding you with details that have always been there from the first place - Yes, some revelations only come with time and you will be given decisive information very late into trials, but the way everything falls into place is always a very satisfying romp and a very engaging brain-teaser. I was flabbergasted when the final case had established and hidden a crucial detail right in the first 20 minutes of the courtroom trial, and I never noticed until it became important.

The game had me beam with joy at its writing and character the deduction segments were engaging and fun, and it's all around a wonderful experience. The worst I can say about it is that it feels too much like a mid-season-finale, almost like it sets up too much for the second game and is not interested enough in explaining its own overarching mysteries, so it ends on a rather unsatisfying note in regards to that. I have to deduct points here because the game is banking on the promise of something really good coming. I do wonder if the second game will make it all pay off, and if it does, hey, I'll be very happy, but I can't give points for promises, now can I?

I love that we finally have a soulsy action game that turns your defensive options alone into a whole new category of risk/reward system that I've never quite seen before like this. Choosing between parry, soul shield, dodging and avoidance through abilities for every enemy attack while managing the break meter is the most fun I had with defense in a game period. I also love that this game finally does away with the stamina paradigm of many of its contemporaries and introduces this different kind of active resource management that feels fresh and exciting. The combat as a whole doesn't have the depth of Nioh 2's combat, but it is satisfying for many hours all the same. You can make up so many fundamentally different strategies for every challenge this game throws at you, and while that does throw balancing out of the window for some of them I would much have this breadth of choices that I can mix and match through the job system to create my own depth rather than every boss having the "adequate" difficulty. You know you made a soulslike game fun when the magic casters are a) viable and b) make you think rather than just spamming spells. Speaking of, the MP system (getting more max MP through soul shield) is also very smart, because it plays into the aforementioned strong defensive options while giving casters a strong reason to move in.

The story is a cool subversion of the classic Final Fantasy tropes, the game is a heartfelt love letter to the series in its music and visual design.

Also, there are both a banger Dubstep and a DnB remix of FF5 music on this OST, so this is an instant 5/5 stars


While playing its epilogue, P5R made me feel a profound and familiar sadness. I was sad because it was going to be over. That is the biggest compliment I could possibly give a game of its caliber. After 130 hours of playtime it was clear that this is not a game I will replay anytime soon, but that it will stay with me; And the fond memories I’ve made during this very long time will actively shape my daily thought process to some degree. In a way, it managed to make me care about it and its characters just as much as I did with (I can’t believe I’m saying this) Undertale. Compared to that game, Persona 5 Royal lacks the tongue-in-cheek humour, but it more than makes up for with its unbridled hope and its sharp rejection of any sort of cynicism or defeatism.

But, let’s talk a bit of gameplay before I get back to waxing philosophically:

The game consists of daily life and dungeon/exploration/combat segments that are fairly strictly separated, but during a chapter you can choose when exactly to tackle the currently available big dungeon.

The daily life segments are very vivid for what they are. I would love to say something really cheesy, like “You actually feel like you’re in Tokyo” but that is obviously not true, although it emulates the feeling of a big city with all your friends, and colorful shops and characters in it very well, especially given that the map sizes of the city segments are usually rather small. You will have a lot of days and evenings in the calendar during you which you can freely decide what to do. You can level up your social stats, which will usually grant you access to more confidants - people you can have a deeper relationship with - and give you other opportunities in the city. You can meet up with said confidants and intensify your relationship level. This sounds very mechanical, but it’s actually where Persona 5 Royal shines the most: Each relationship level you reach with any character has its own unique (and sometimes fairly substantial) little narrative segment during which you can react to the character, deepening your bonds by spending time with them and helping them overcome their hardships, and every character actually has an interesting story to tell.

The combat in this game is elemental-weakness-turn-based combat, so there is an inherent problem with the combat being a very crude abstraction of what an exciting battle would be like, but it handles itself rather well, given that fact. This game has two (and a half) major advantages over its peers:

1) The baton pass system. This system allows you to have an extra turn when you hit the weakness of an enemy and pass that turn on to a teammate, granting them a temporary attack boost. The smart idea here is that you can cascade this effect and doing multiple baton passes in a row increases the attack boost by so much that you can’t help yourself taking a small break to think about how you will absolutely decimate the enemies optimally. Big numbers are fun in this game, because it actually made you think for a bit. It introduces a dynamic puzzle element into turn-based combat, and I wish more games tried to have a fresh take like this on the turn-based formula.

2) The combat systems actually interact really well with the daily life segments of the game. By leveling up your relationship level with your confidants, you gain abilities for combat and exploration, and most of these abilities feel like meaningful upgrades to your repertoire. This intersection makes it so you can’t wait to try your newly unlocked ability in the dungeon, and the game smartly balances these abilities so they neither feel overpowered nor underwhelming – for the most part.

2.5) You will unlock the ability to defeat weaker enemies without actually having to play through the fights, while still gaining all experience and gold. This drastically cuts the time spent in far too easy (and hence boring) combat encounters, and it’s a huge quality-of-life improvement that not many other RPGs have.

Finally, let’s talk about the exploration. I have to admit that this is where Persona Royal fumbles a bit. While I find it great to not wander through randomly generated boring looking tilesets like in Persona 3 and 4, Persona 5 Royal has its own problems. The game constantly handholds you while exploring the (admittedly impressive-looking) dungeons, and except for the last few, it will almost always tell you puzzle solutions verbatim. It feels like the puzzles aren’t meant to be puzzles for you, the player, but for the characters in your group. You’re just there alongside with them, waiting for the penny to finally drop - and then you still have to implement the solution afterwards. Naturally, you will most likely feel aggravated, because the dungeons do have potential that is just never fulfilled. One positive thing I can say it that they work reasonably well in a narrative sense, and that each dungeon has its own arc and revelations, which helps the overall feeling of the game that everything is well thought-out in that regard.

Even in its weakest points, Persona 5 Royal still shines in conveying its story and most importantly, its themes. I have rarely seen a game with a script this gargantuan that truly justifies itself, but I can’t point at many scenes that feel like they were entirely there to pad things out in old-school JRPG style. Every character in the main cast goes through their own fulfilling arc, every segment feels like it explores some facet of the overall messages the game wants to convey, and as a whole Persona 5 Royals narrative and thematic beats come together like a very well-crafted puzzle. Everything becomes about hope and overcoming adversity, about feeling like a outcast and still doing right by others. Persona 5 Royal asks the fundamental question if this world is worth saving despite all the terrible things mankind is capable of and it answers it with such a loud and resounding “yes” that even the cynic in me just utterly crumbles before it.

To make me not just roll my eyes at this very corny view of the world is worth a lot to me, because truly feeling like a hopeful little kid again is a commodity that becomes rarer the older you get – and it’s always a relief to see that some piece of media will be there to recapture that magic wholeheartedly, uncynically and without making you groan. I am thankful for the people that still create art that has genuine messages without some sort of triple-layered ironic metacommentary on something. I love this game and what it tries to tell the world, and it taught me that I maybe just shouldn’t care if that sounds too corny

Unsighted is probably the best game of 2021 that you haven’t heard of. Where other games like it would be content to deliver a very carefully crafted and strongly guided experience to the player and leave lot of people satisfied, Unsighted opts to do the unthinkable: It just lets loose.

This top-down action game see you explore a world, beat up some enemies, solve some light puzzles and find ways to travel to your destination, not unlike Zelda. After a short prologue that shows you the ropes of combat and sets up the narrative and world, you find yourself in an overworld where an NPC marks the five McGuffins you have to find on the map. And then you can just do whatever you want. Yes, absolutely whatever you want. After I collected the first traversal item (a pair of high jump boots), I was apprehensive and thought the game might lead me through a predetermined sequence of events, just taking me along for the ride while actually orchestrating everything itself.

Stubborn as I am, I looked at my options and set out, determined to do the last dungeon first and to fall on my face in that endeavour. I did not. While the game would not let me just waltz right into the hardest dungeon, I just happened to stumble upon an item which let me traverse the overworld map in ways that clearly skipped the normal sequence of events, but the game did not do so begrudgingly, it openly handed me this weapon with a wink and told me to wreak havoc. This was the moment I knew I was in for something special. Instead of just heading to each dungeon, I largely explored the overworld map and I was thoroughly fascinated with the fact that I was very clearly just circumventing all the Zelda-esque traversal puzzles with my new-found weapon.

While there is a clear intended progression order and reliance on some dungeon items, it is also almost always possible to circumvent any given traversal block with some path you haven’t found yet. There are always multiple paths to your destination, and you probably can take half of them. But the true genius of Unsighted lies not only in the map design or the availability of items that let you just skip things, no. The game even has hidden movement techniques that let you further skip puzzles and obstacles in the overworld. At this point, a comparison to Super Metroid is inevitable: Yes, these optional movement techniques have the same versatility and sense of discovery that a shinespark and a walljump in that game grant you. A comparison between these games ends up making Unsighted see eye to eye with the search action juggernaut - that is a highly impressive feat in itself. You can legitimately play this game and explore its dungeons like you would for one of the classic Zelda games if you follow the intended progression sequence, but you can also play it like me and just blow caution to the wind. I am impressed how well the game manages to deliver on both of these types experiences, depending on which you opt for.

Another feature immensely helping the game’s openness on replays is the crafting system. While anybody who has played any video games in the last 10 years will probably just roll their eyes at this particular phrase, Unsighted surprises with another great idea: What if you could, on future playthroughs, just craft the dungeon items? This game does the unthinkable and lets you – as far as I know – craft almost all weapons and items at the crafting table, and that includes the dungeon items that are used for traversal. You just need to know the recipe. Not only does this mean that you could access the whole map from the start if you wanted to, it also means that you can make a choice on future replays. Do you want to abuse the crafting system or do you want to have another exploratory playthrough? Almost every facet of this game facilitates its openness, and that isn’t even going into how keys and key doors are designed and placed in this game, which gives you another layer of choice for your traversal of the map.

The combat in this game plays like a mix between Dark Souls and Hyper Light Drifter. You can do melee attacks or shoot with a gun. The weapons all have different attributes, and there are a multitude of viable strategies to approach combat. The equivalent of the estus flask, the syringe, fills up when you hit enemies. You have a stamina meter and you can dodge or block/parry enemy attacks. You can also equip “chips” that increase different attributes like number of bullets or weapon strength, as well as some with more specific effects, like a chip that makes the syringe fills slowly on its own. Weapon and chip choice leads to a lot of customizability and this customizability is what makes combat (theoretically) very satisfying and varied. My main strategy was to equip a machine gun and an axe so I could stunlock enemies with the gun while selectively doing big damage. One of the main problems here is that for stronger enemies parry and countering is such a disproportionally easier and quicker strategy than everything else, that the game turns into parry fishing on many of the bosses and mini-bosses - the parry counter also results in your stamina recharging and syringes being filled quicker than with normal attacks, making it an even better option. It’s a shame too, because only 2 of the bosses don’t let you fish more parries much, and that showed me what exhilarating combat the game is capable of when you don’t feel the need to parry everything to do any sort of substantial damage. I would have preferred a system where the moment-to-moment combat with normal attacks was the focus while making the parry feel more like an optional mechanic.

The last large facet of the game is the timer system. This game not only has a timer for your exploration, but for every NPC, so if you bumble about for too long in your adventure or just die too often to the enemies and bosses, you will be left with a barren world without shops or people to talk to. Even your small Navi-like companion can die after some time. The only way to alleviate this is to give these people (or yourself) the meteor dust that has been distributed in copious amounts across the map. If you extend an NPCs life three times they will give you a special item that fits their function and character. This can range from gaining new chips to acquiring things like a portable forge that lets you upgrade weapons anywhere as long as you have the money. The timer system does make exploration more stressful, but also more rewarding. The meteor dust is really hidden everywhere, and you will likely not feel helpless in the face of the time limit (even if I lost 3 NPCs to this system). On the difficulty I played – normal – the timer was just generous enough, considering how often I died and how many detours I made.

Other than my single qualm about the parry in combat, Unsighted’s gameplay comes together beautifully, and additionally to the great gameplay, it is also just visually stunning and the soundtrack is a treat, setting the mood for intrigue and action during exploration and combat segments. The all-female main cast is also inherently a big plus, because you just don’t see it very often in this medium.

This review has gone on for long enough, and what else can I even say? This game can measure up in all regards to explorative titans like Super Metroid. It is just as replayable, speedrunnable and enjoyable in all modes of play. If you like exploration in games, you will very likely love this game, and it’s a unique blend of different genres that will make me remember it fondly and replay it just as often as I do with my other favorite search action games.

This game is weird. Weird in all departments. While the first game was content being a retro-platformer heavily inspired by Castlevania 3 with a hint of Ninja Gaiden, this game feels more like its own beast with Castlevania 3 just being a very distant memory. I don't want to draw too many comparisons between the two games in the series, but there is a noticable difference in level design and enemy placement philosophy.

Your first playthrough sees you start only with Zangetsu, who is supposed to be the standard character without any special abilities. He can jump in one specific arc and attack. As you would expect. As the game progresses, you unlock further characters with considerably different movement and attack options, some of them being a weird fit for a game that is ostensibly supposed to remind you of the classic Castlevanias. The second Character, Dominique is already very unconventional for the genre with her multidirectional attacks, her attack pogo move and her sub-weapons that can revive or heal party members. The third character, Robert, provides you with a hitscan normal gun attack (unlimited distance, no less), a walljump and a very low crawl. The fourth character, Hachi (a corgi in a Magitek Armor) has a generous hover ability and a sub-weapon that lets you be invulnerable for a considerable amount of time.

Needless to say, all of this breaks the rules of classic Castlevania wide open. Paired with the fact that every level has multiple ways to go through it depending on how you utilize the characters abilities, it seems fairly easy to beat, and quite honestly, it is. If you’re looking for very hard retro challenge, you should look elsewhere. What this game does provide in droves is replayability. Level and room design seem to be less rigid than in classic castlevanias, but it makes sense when you think about it in terms of the new characters. Why should you craft very specific challenges if you also just hand the player abilities that break them easily? The great classic Castlevanias were usually designed with only one or two characters in mind, but this game accomodates the constant switching by throwing a lot of different things at you that you can solve with a lot of different approaches, and it’s commendable that the game gives you that freedom. The biggest problem is that – at first – it feels underwhelming and like you’re cheesing everything, but I learned to love that about the game on the many repeat playthroughs the game incentivizes you to do. There even are story reasons for playing through the game 5(!) or more times, but considering that every level has at least 2 routes, the experience stays equally fresh and familiar with each time.

The game also becomes noticably harder from the second campaign on, even going so far as giving the bosses way more health and (effectively) turning every single attack into an “EX” version of itself. The freedom and looseness present in level design surprisingly also translates to the bosses, and even the more rigid ones have a few ways to approach them smartly. A good example is the first boss: A Dragon. This boss in the first campaign is as standard as a big Castlevania boss can be, you have to avoid its 2 attacks and can only hit it when its mouth it open. Considering that you only have Zangetsu at this point, it is a very rigid experience, and even the sub-weapons can not really make you shake that feeling. Fast forward to the second playthrough, where you start with multiple characters and your options open up immensely. Hachi’s attack is slower but can hit the dragon when its mouth is closed. You can selectively use Hachi’s invulnerability at specific points in the fight to ignore the bosses big beam attack and just bloody punch him during it the whole time. You can shoot the boss with Robert at points where you couldn’t before, and you can of course now choose between multiple sub-weapons for multiple characters to play around with and see which one you can use at specific points in the fight. It’s exhilarating to find these options out and to see what you can get away with.

I can see myself playing through this game again and again and discovering new level and boss strategies for a long time, and the thought of challenging myself by setting up constraints like only using one character or not using sub weapons has also crossed my mind. The fact that I have these thoughts and actively look forward to replaying this game again after having done so 5 times already is a testament to the new design philosophy working out, and I highly recommend that if you ever play this game and feel like there’s a spark there, you should stick with it and see how it can surprise you with its freedoms.

Atelier Ryza is pretty high on the upper end of mediocre RPGs, despite only having one interesting system in the game in its alchemy system. The advantage it has though, is that this one system is fleshed out so much that the rest of the game does not really matter much, and as it leaves many options for the player to approach the challenges the game poses.

The story is barely worth mentioning, and the characters and their motivations are basically walking cliches, but it at least doesn’t pretend to be an epic about saving the world, and it does generally convey the relaxedness you feel when playing the game. The combat is also lackluster in all its aspects, as even superficial things like skill animations and damage numbers do not feel satisfying for the first time you see them, but it at least gets the job done of posing as a genuine skill check for whether your know how to use the alchemy system. You can’t just steamroll the enemies by fighting in many random encounters and expecting the leveling to do, well, anything, really, because the stat increases you gain are negligible compared to the equipment you build. This is a good thing, because this means that Atelier Ryza can not really make you grind mindlessly.

While many other middle-budget RPGs would be content to browbeat you either into fighting the same enemy formations 50 times or to make everything so easy that nothing really matters, Atelier Ryza derives its satisfaction from you discovering and remembering where you got which material to synthesize what item, and it excels at making you feel excited for a material that the alchemy list showed you is necessary for the bomb with the biggest boom. (I played the game on hard and I would recommend anyone to do the same, because it seems to be the only difficulty where anything can realistically pose a threat to your party.)

Even if you started from scratch to gather these materials, Atelier Ryza has made 3 very smart moves in the process to not make this feel tedious:

a) There are no super-rare materials at gathering points or from enemies, and the drop chances are all so high that – stochastically speaking – you will not get frustrated by a material not appearing.

b) The game lets you fast travel anywhere at any time, which makes the material gathering a fairly short and sweet affair, that builds tension for only 5-10 minutes until you can build that item or equipment you wanted and finally go and explode some enemies.

c) After a certain point in the game, it lets you multiply materials and equipment you synthesized, so if you have made a really good armor or materials to synthesize a weapon, you can just multiply these for your party members and generally don’t have to repeat synthesize much from this point on.

This all leads to Atelier Ryza having the feeling of a really solid incremental game that gives you enough choices to impact how fast and in what way the numbers go up. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it isn’t. I imagine it would have been easy to make this kind of game feel tedious and grindy, but instead Atelier Ryza feels… relaxing. It rarely annoyed me, it never browbeat me into 3-hour grinds just to be able to continue, and it was very up-front from almost the very beginning what kind of game it was. I appreciate this upfrontness. I could put it on when I just wanted to have a very chill evening playing a game. It’s trying to be comfort food, and it’s pretty good at it.